Over the past 30 years, a wealth of research has shown conclusively that writing for the web is different than writing for the printed page. This should be unsurprising to a student of written communication because the web differs from print both in terms of the purposes for reading and in terms of the constraints of the medium.
The main difference between print and the web is that print readers read linearly, while web readers do not, and this has a number of implications great and small, the most important of which are summarized here.
A full primer for web writing is beyond the scope of this article, but there are many excellent resources for learning how write effectively for the web. In particular, the following links can provide important insights into how writing for the web differs from writing for the printed page.
Web Style Guide Online
Nielsen Norman Group
Web Writing Fundamentals
Design matters: The visual format of information makes a huge difference in how well readers can make use of your content. This means that the look and feel of text on a web page affects how well readers can understand it. Try to “chunk” text into important bits, locate information in a clear hierarchy, with the most important information first, use tables or charts to deliver complex information, and use good line-length and typography to improve readability.
Accessibility and Usability: Readers typically scan web content, rather than reading it, and they expect important information to be accessible and easy to locate.
Modularity: Web text is usually modular, that is, it is usually a small piece of a larger picture, a piece that can be reused elsewhewhere. As a result, web content tends to be more modular, smaller and more self-contained, than other writing.
Shorter paragraphs: In an academic essay, 5 to 8 sentences per paragraph is the general rule of thumb, however, on the web this creates daunting walls of text that readers will avoid at all costs. The physical demands of reading on a screen make paragraphs of 1 to 3 sentences more effective.
Hyperlinks: Print pages have a lot of conventions for referencing other material, such as in-text citations, saying “at left” or “below”, whereas on the web, most of these references are handled by hyperlinks. Readers expect pages to be interactive, and they expect the author has already located the sources they need. Because of these expectations, try to link as often as possible to other sources. When you mention another webpage, link to it. When linking, avoid context-less anchors, such as “click here”, and instead locate the link anchor on meaningful text that best describes the content you are referencing.
Multimedia: Webpages are not text-only. Instead, readers expect a variety of visual content, including images and video. Multimedia should be of good quality and should be well-captioned. Both images and video should appear near the top of an article, and they should be clearly related to the content of which they are a part.
Tone/Style/Register: These terms are used by different people to mean different things, but in general, the register of web writing is more informal than that of print. The use of jargon or an overly officious tone can cause readers to skip important content. Generally speaking, web writing is more laid back, more personal, and simpler than academic essays.
Errors: Surface errors such as spelling mistakes or the use of the wrong word are more egregious on a web page because the text is typically less dense. This means that errors often leap out at readers and send the message that the writer is incompetent or doesn’t care.
Emphasis: In a print document, bold, italic, and underline are used to emphasize text. On the web, however, readers expect emphasized text, especially underlined text, to be a hyperlink. This means that you should very rarely use bold or italics for emphasis, and never use underlines.
Headings and subheadings: Because web readers mostly scan text, the effective use of headings and subheadings is of vital importance and cannot be overstated. Headings and subheadings not only improve the organization of a page by grouping and breaking up content, they also help readers quickly locate the information they need.
Spaces: Many of us learned to put two spaces after a period. That time is over. On the web, one space after a period is the convention.
Understanding the differences between print and web text will help you create more effective content, but ultimately both come down to serving the needs of your audience . . . because that’s what writing, any writing, is all about.
The more you read web pages, the better you will get at writing them. Rather than using print-driven assumptions about how a text should look, take the time to analyze your rhetorical situation to determine what are the needs of your audience, and keep these needs in the forefront of your mind as you compose.